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     Volume 7 Issue 14 | April 4, 2008 |

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Balinese Gastronomic Tradition

I Wayan Juniartha

It seems that every time a visitor, foreign or otherwise, engages a Balinese in a mouth-watering discussion on the island's traditional delicacies, the words babi guling have always managed to dominate the conversation.

It is as if it is the only traditional food ever to come out of the Balinese kitchen.

That is certainly not the case. The civilisation that has given the world the majestic Legong, the beautiful terraced paddy fields, the intoxicating arak attack (liquor mixed with lemonade and lime juice) and the bare-breasted exotic girls is surely quite capable of creating a gastronomic tradition that isn't based solely on pork products.

Indeed, babi guling is nothing but a single item in the island's huge repository of tasteful foods. And, despite its heavenly tastethe suckling pig of Ibu Oka in downtown Ubud is the closest one to heavenbabi guling is not even the highest achievement of the Balinese gastronomy tradition.

The peak of this tradition is surely the ayam (chicken) and bebek (duck) betutu. The whole chicken or duck is covered and stuffed with base genep, which means a blend of all the spices and herbs known to the Balinese, before being wrapped with banana leaves and slowly roasted in heaps of burning ashes from rice husks and twigs of coffee trees. The cooking process can take up to six hours.

By the end of the process, the meat will have been transformed into the tenderest, most delicious meal any human has ever tasted, provided that the human has a sufficiently strong stomach to appreciate the raw power and sensation of Balinese spices.

Put simply, the betutu's slow cooking process, ultimate mixture of spices and herbs, and most importantly, fantastic taste have easily secured its first place in the realm of Balinese traditional gastronomy.

Unfortunately, the advent of modernity and the onslaught of tourism have driven most of these traditional delicacies out of the island's mainstream food outlets. The internationally acknowledged gastronomic traditions of the French and the Mediterranians quickly invaded the island that is desperately wanting to be seen as a modern, chic destination.

The simple, standarised process and taste of the American fast food industry immediately replaced the difficult, arduous process of Balinese traditional foods. Balinese children are now more familiar with the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonalds than the Balinese suckling pig.

In the tourism resort areas like Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, only a few establishments, including the iconic Warung Made, Batan Waru and Kunyit restaurant at Santika, still serve a wide variety of Balinese traditional meals.

In Ubud, the number of establishments serving Balinese traditional foods is larger than around Kuta, Legian and Seminyak.

Bumbu, Casa Luna, Indus, Nomad and Warung Enak are several places that serve Balinese foods, although with a weaker version of spices and herbs.

The more authentic tastemore spices and herbs, to be precisecan be sampled in several well known warung (foodstall) such as Warung Wardhani and Warung Satria in downtown Denpasar and Warung Kedewatan and Warung Teges in Ubud.

Warung Tresni in Renon serves a refreshing Balinese chicken porridge while Warung Mak Beng in Sanur serve a simple yet fabulous menu of fried fish with chilli sauce strong enough to render a weak person unconscious.

Yet, to be able to comprehend the diversity and uniqueness of the Balinese gastronomic tradition, the visitor must visit the local pasar senggol (night market) food bazaar. The best pasar senggol to date is the one that opens nightly at downtown Gianyar city, some 30km east of the island's capital of Denpasar.

Dozens of food and cakes stalls line up the pasar senggol's narrow lane. The visitor can find almost anything there, from the Balinese spicy salad of Srombotan, pork sausage of Urutan, egg and blood sausage of Oret, shredded vegetables and meats of Lawar, chopped liver and heart broth of Komoh and, of course, betutu.

Moreover, several stalls are dedicated to various kinds of Balinese cakes and puddings. The colourful desertsor appetisers sometimesand the thick, dark palm sugar juice exude a sweet smell that gives a refreshing break to the alley's dominant fragrance of heavy spices.

A 30-minute visit to this pasar senggol will easily convince any visitor that the Balinese gastronomic tradition is far more than just a case of a suckling pig.

For those visitors, who either don't have the time or the money to explore the vast realm of Balinese traditional foods, a brief visit to a nearby bookstore will be sufficient. There you can buy Fragrant Rice, a half biography, half cooking book authored by Janet De Neefe, the Australian woman who has given Ubud the fine Casa Luna restaurant and cooking school.

The details on Balinese foods and cultures in the book are more than enough to convert anybody into a worshipper of Bali through and through. After all, Janet herself has admitted that the book is a record of her “continuing love affair with Bali” as well as “a tale of passion, marriage and food”.

This article was first published in The Jakarta Post. Reprinted with permission.

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